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'Babylon' react: Strike while police publicity's hot

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Babylon
Dean Rogers/Sundance

In the last couple years SundanceTV has made a name for itself among the elite spelunkers who can find it on their cable package with its gallery of slow-moving, high-minded crime mysteries such as Top of the Lake and The Red Road. It’s like if CBS went to the museum. The boutique network’s latest import, Babylon, breaks the mold. It’s a brash, wired urban police drama whose pilot was directed by executive producer Danny Boyle, the colorful, kinetic hand behind Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire, and most recently Trance, a pixelated thriller that imagines total surveillance.

That’s the main preoccupation of Babylon, too. Not only do the cops have tricky jobs, but they’re under constant scrutiny—cameras are everywhere. Brit Marling plays Liz Garvey, the new American communications director for Scotland Yard. She’s basically the London police department’s CJ Cregg, and her President Bartlet is Commissioner Richard Miller (James Nesbitt as a wannabe Malcolm Tucker). Meanwhile there are two separate cars of Territorial Support Groups, tasked with maintaining public order, under Babylon‘s scrutiny. One has a hothead on crew and a documentary director filming them, and the other has a traumatized officer, Warwick (Nick Blood), who was recently cleared in a shooting.

Creators Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain have earned a look. They co-created cult comedy Peep Show, and went on to write for political satire The Thick of It and its movie spin-off, In the Loop, as well as Chris Morris’ suicide-bomber black comedy Four Lions. Now they’re writing a series about cops with a public relations problem. It couldn’t have come to American shores at a more perfect time. So why does Babylon have such a soft bite?

You could start with Marling, the least convincing person in the cast. No matter what she says, she speaks in that same quiet register, like she’s recording a yoga mantra, and it’s hard to believe she’s ever held a phone. It may as well be a paperweight. Unless the script includes a call, the phone’s there to show that she has her hands full, not that she’s busy or modern or plugged in. But it’s not Marling’s fault her material is so undefined. It’s a problem that seeps all the way through the cast. Her deputy, played by Bertie Carvel, is a comically snaky except for the comical part, and as moving as Warwick’s post-traumatic stress is, the story never gets the specific details to lift it out of the generic. Nick Blood’s good, but few actors are that good.

True to Armstrong and Bain’s roots in the comedy of bureaucracy, the brightest spots in the cast are the assistant characters. As the commissioner’s personal aide, Jonny Sweet takes abuse with a smile and tosses off such precise, awkward deliveries that he could be on The Thick of It. Ella Smith boasts a similar mastery of that comic style as Liz’s right-hand woman Mia. When the commissioner starts getting impudent at a hearing with the mayor, she snarks, “He’s like a French 14-year-old.” Why are Sweet and Smith just comic relief? They’re the cogs that feel most human. Isn’t that the point of Babylon, to humanize these monoliths?

By contrast, quietly chewing out a subordinate, Nesbitt says, “I’ve got a map inside my head of all the trouble in the world, and you just popped up on the radar like Godzilla’s hard-on.” It’s the kind of thing Malcolm Tucker might say, but here it’s not funny in the least. Babylon isn’t a comedy-drama or a black comedy or however else they’re trying to market it, at least not in the premiere. It’s a procedural, process-oriented and so mild nothing sticks.

In the first episode, there’s a riot at a youth prison, which leads to some quick qualifying—is it a riot, which would automatically kick in a call to the police, or just a disturbance?—and a bounty placed on Warwick’s head. Before the day’s through, the commissioner is raked over the coals at a hearing, to boot. Liz just shakes her damn head. How are they gonna get out of these ones? Well, the cops suppress the riot, easy peasy, and everyone survives to deal with their pressures another day.

At the end, Liz and her deputy are suddenly sniping at each other in front of the commissioner before retiring for the evening, and it feels like a different show. That’s because, instead of dealing with the standalone or even serial stories, it’s explicitly about the larger project of Babylon. In the age of omnipresent surveillance and worldwide communication at the click of a button, transparency is becoming an inevitability. That’s Liz’s long-term strategy for the department. If they mess up, Liz wants to be honest about it. Hence, she leaks the footage of Warwick’s shooting. It’s a timely topic, and not just in regards to law enforcement. But television’s competition nowadays. In the past couple years, the UK alone has given us the visual punch of shooting-spree mini Southcliffe, the primal and psychological heft of Irish policier The Fall, and the speculative rigor of techno satire Black Mirror. If the premiere is any indication, Babylon‘s too little, too late.